by R.J. Eskow
parents have the right to choose their baby's gender? How about its
sexual preference? Intelligence? Physical appearance? And are these
Futurists see a conflict forming over our dominion over the human
body, and over the choices we make about our biological future - and
that of our children. Some call it a clash between "bioliberals" and
"bioconservatives," and frame it as a debate over individual rights.
When it comes to transforming one's own body they may be right, but it gets thornier when children are involved.
Is our only choice between a transhumanist future where children are
genetically designed to win on "American Idol," or a world where
authoritarians rule our most personal choices? The answer, sadly, may
Am I a "bioliberal" or "bioconservative"? That's not a question I
can answer. The use of politically-based terminology is understandable
but, in the end, I find it more misleading than helpful. The left/right
construct is not particularly apt in this case.
Transhumanists - those who advocate the use of science to alter the
human future - don't often receive a lot of press attention, but they
may be playing an instrumental role in reshaping our lives. Some of
them have adopted the "bioliberal" label, and other thinkers have used
the term "liberal eugenics," but I don't believe the labels are helpful
Philosopher Jurgen Habermas is clearly progressive in the political
sphere, but argues against a number of genetic modifications. Newt
Gingrich, who doesn't hesitate to use fundamentalist religion to
support his conservative movement, supports leading transhumanist Ray
Transhumanists argue for that even the most radical physical
modifications of the body will become commonplace, and that the body
itself may soon be obsolete. Some of them argue that any form of choice
is acceptable, including decisions regarding the gender, sexuality, and
other traits of their children. That means that some of them are
arguing from what appears to be more of a libertarian perspective than a liberal one.
Another term the "bioliberals" use for themselves is "techno-progressive," as explained in this Wikipedia entry
(although, without taking sides in the conflict, I would suggest that Wikipedia review this entry for bias).
This piece by Russell Blackford
documents the argument made by Elizabeth Fenton against Habermas (the
Fenton article is unavailable for direct linking). Fenton restricts her
argument to whether Habermas is correct when he asserts there is a
naturally-grounded form of human nature, and that it is a violation of
human dignity to alter that.
Fenton is eloquent in her defense of humanity's "right to evolve,"
and I support the transhumanists' rights to alter their own biophysical
makeup. But I'd like to see more sophisticated debate about the right
of parents to pick their children's physical and behavioral traits.
It's no longer a matter of individual rights when parents are making
decisions on behalf of unborn children. Doesn't the state have a
legitimate interest in protecting children? Yes, the transhumanists
would respond, but only if those particular children would be harmed by
the parents' choices. The social impact of the parents' decision (e.g.
to select gender or sexual preference) is outside the state's purview.
I suspect they're right, and I certainly don't want the state making
personal decisions for individuals or families. But I'd like to see
more thorough discussion and debate.
Overall, I can't agree with Blackford's characterization of the debate when he says the following:
liberal eugenics would allow parents considerable scope to select their
childrens' genetic potentialities. It stands in contrast to
authoritarian eugenics: historical attempts by the state to control the
distributions of genetic traits across an entire population.
think it's more complicated than that. The conflict isn't just between
"liberals" and "authoritarians." That "considerable scope" could result
in biology that's driven by extremist ideology (no gays please) or
fashion movements (every girl a Paris Hilton! Every boy a Jared Leto!)
Yes, the alternative might be a state attempt to control eugenics. But it might also be a state attempt to prevent
the control of genetic traits by shallow fashion, demagogic political
movements, and the fickle hand of the free market. Here again, I would
suggest that "liberal" is not the right term (especially since liberals
support state intervention for social good). I'd characterize the
Blackford position as libertarian eugenics.
In India, it's illegal for a doctor to do exactly that. Is that an
unjust law, as the IEET's readers overwhelmingly believe? Before you
answer, note that the doctor's answer may well mean that far fewer girl
children will be born into Indian families. Imagine a future India,
heavily industrialized due to outsourcing, and almost bereft of women
I would say that, yes, it is an unjust law. But once again, there are no easy answers. There are, however, some very interesting questions.
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog